BACH’S VOCAL IDEAL
by Hermann Max

In The Interpretation of Early Music (London 1963), Robert Donington writes in the chapter “The Voice”: “There is only one fundamental technique of singing: what we now call the old Italian technique.” 

It was probably Giuilio Caccini who, in his forward to Le Nuove Musiche (1610), first described this Italian singing method, which became the standard throughout Europe and remained fundamentally unchanged for the next two hundred years. In his groundbreaking and invaluable work Die italienische Gesangsmethode des 17. Jahrhunderts, Hugo Goldschmidt shows that at the very least German authors like Christoph Demantius, Andreas Herbst, Daniel Friderici, Christoph Bernhard, right up to Johann Agricola (Anleitung zur Singekunst) and Johann Adam Hiller (Vom musikalisch-zierlichen Gesange und Vom musikalische-richtigen Gesange) referred back to Caccini. Coming at the end of a great vocal era, Hiller drew his observations on the one hand from three theoretical works, Andreas Herbst’s Musica practica moderna, Agricola’s Anleitung zur Singekunst, and Giambattista Mancini’s Pensieri e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figorato. On the other, he heard the Italian singing and delivery style of such great singers of his time as Salimbeni, Carestini, Venturini and Annibali at the Hofoper in Dresden under the direction of Hasse, as well as studying it himself with his famous teacher, Antonio Bernacchi.

Italian singing was studied in many places besides the metropolis of Dresden. It was possible even in the rather provincial Meinigen: in 1725 Johann Ludwig Bach set out his own voice-teaching method, backing it up in a response to an indictment against the pedagogy of one the members of his choir with the argument: “Und solcher Methode bedienen sich alle Virtuose teutsche u Italiänische Musici, Von welchen letztern es Capellmstr. auch erlernet” (And this method is employed by all the German and Italian virtuosi, and with one of these latter the Kapellmeister [that is, J.S. Bach] also studied.)

Nicola Porpora’s legendary manuscript page is also based on Caccini and may have been copied and used throughout Europe. Marietta Amstad demonstrated convincingly in Musica 23 (1969) that a single manuscript page of vocal exercises preserved in the British Library could be Porpora’s (or one of countless copies). I will briefly summarize the essential elements of Caccini’s forward. They are: crescere e scemare (swelled tones), the esclamatione, both languida and viva, and the notion of speech as a deliverer of affect, with the individual word as a stimulus for expression. It is clear that music with text was regarded as sung speech, as we know from Monteverdi’s admonition “l’oratione sia padrona del armonia e non serva”. The text remains in the foreground, supported by gesture and facial expressions. What Caccini doesn’t mention, but we recognize today, is the perfect suitability of the Italian language for singing. The Italian’s voice remains open when he sings text, whereas Germans close the voice after each syllable. This openness favors the ability to “inhale the voice” (inalare la voce), as well as the use of a high head voice and the avoidance of glottal stops. Italian also uses many voiced consonants, which lead to a widening of the vocal apparatus. All of this furthers a cantabile legato, which later became known as bel canto. Incidentally, the English language is also ideal for singing.

This old Italian singing technique, of central importance to all singers and singing teachers, must have been an object of reflection in Bach’s mind as well. To the best of my knowledge, it is not known what works of vocal pedagogy he knew or possessed. Nevertheless, the Baroque musician could be well informed even without theoretical works, through discussions and reports from abroad, in Bach’s case from colleagues, friends and guests who were widely traveled. Information was primarily gleaned from such discussions, and only minimally through reading. At his parents’ inn, Schütz related his impressions of Italy to visitors (including the later Thomaskantor Johann Hermann Schein). It seems likely that not only composition, but also singing might have been a topic. Johann Philipp Krieger studied with Bernardo Pasquini in Rom and brought back works of Jacopo and Alessandro Melani to Weissenfels. Could he have been silent about the vocal art of the Melanis?  Their brother Atto was after all the famed castrato who had dazzled Paris in the legendary performance of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo in 1647.

Like all of these musicians, Bach must have grappled with questions related to singing. No one in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could avoid this, least of all a cantor at St. Thomas. Bach was a perfectionist, and made it his business to get to the bottom of central issues like composition, rhetoric, and organ building. He must have discovered empirically, as did Hiller, that the Italians were superior to the Germans in singing, because of the unequally effective training at the Neapolitan and Venetian conservatories, and because of the differences in the languages. Hiller writes, “Zur Erlernung der italiänischen Sprache ist ein deutscher Sänger, der bemerkt sein will, mit allem Ernste zu ermuntern. Die große Revolution, da im Gesange die deutsche Sprache an die Stelle der italiänischen treten soll, ist vielleicht in Deutschland nicht unmöglich; aber so nahe bevorstehend ist sie doch nicht, dass ein Sänger mit der deutschen Sprache allein Aufsehen zu machen hoffen dürfte. Es ist auch so schwer nicht, mit der italiänischen Sprache bekannt zu werden. Wenn man etwas vom Französischen und Lateinischen weiß, so hat man die italiänische Sprache schon halb begriffen.” (Any German singer who wishes to make his mark should be earnestly encouraged to learn the Italian language. A major revolution, where the German language takes the place of Italian in singing, is perhaps not impossible in Germany; however, it is not to be expected so soon that a singer can hope to attract notice singing only in German. It is also not really so difficult to learn Italian. With a little knowledge of French and Latin, one is already halfway there.)

We can read between the lines of this quotation not only a plea for the art of Italian singing, but also for the Italian pronunciation of Latin, which Christoph Bernhard makes more clearly: “Was die Lateinische Sprache anbelangt, weil dieselbige in unterschiedenen Ländern unterschiedlich ausgesprochen wird, so steht dem Sänger frey, dieselbe so wie sie an dem Orthe, wo er singt, üblich ist, auszusprechen. Sollte aber jemanden belieben, das Latein auf Italienisch auszusprechen, wie nun mehro die meisten Sänger gewohnet, so hielte ich solches aus erheblichen Ursachen : welche hier nicht können angeführt werden : nicht nur für zulässig, sondern auch recht und rathsam...” (Since Latin is pronounced differently in different countries, a singer is free to sing it as it is usually pronounced in the place where he is singing. However, if someone should prefer Italian pronunciation of Latin, as most singers now do, I would consider it, for many reasons I can’t go into here, not only acceptable, but also right and advisable…).

Bach had broad interests and was presumably highly knowledgeable. It was the norm not only to be informed about composition and performance style, but above all about singing: “Singing is the basis of music,” as Telemann expressed it.

Bach was also well informed about Dresden. From 1747 Nicola Porpora was active there. Can Bach have possibly not known about the manuscript sheet of the famous singing teacher? In Dresden Christoph Bernhard wrote his tract Von der Singekunst oder Manier, which is contained in his book Kompositionslehre Heinrich Schützens in der Fassung seines Schülers Christoph Bernhard. Couldn’t a copy of this work, which was never published, have existed in Leipzig? None less than Beethoven himself possessed a copy. Naturally, it is the Italian school of singing that Bernhard describes in his tract.

Hasse’s wife Faustina Bordoni was active in Dresden from 1731 until after Bach’s death, and Bach must have heard much about her legendary art. Possibly he even heard her there himself in Hasse’s Cleofide in 1733. No one was opposed to the actual Italian art of singing. At most there was protest against the exaggerated ornamentation and diminutions which Caccini himself had warned about. In his continuo tutor, the German Erhard Niedt was carried away to the point of commenting that the Italians had long ago “bitten the head off the snake of good taste.”

So, did Bach practice the Italian style of singing, favor it, possibly even fanatically promote it? Considering the basic Baroque attitude with regard to singing, anything else is hardly conceivable. It is striking that Bach re-ordered new copies of the motet collection Florilegium Portense three or four times during his tenure as cantor. They were so much in use that the old part books were in tatters by the time of each new purchase. Florilegium Portense contains important Latin motets from Italy. I suspect that Bach intended to transmit the art of Italian singing through these pieces. Perhaps Bach’s pedagogical goal was to convey the advantages of the Italian language in singing by using the Italian pronunciation of Latin. With so many Italian singers in Germany, the obvious advantages of this way of singing Latin with regard to sonority as well as vocal technique must have made it seem worth mastering. The preference expressed by Christoph Bernard as quoted earlier can be presumed to have become common practice for Bach as well.

In his Anleitung zur Singekunst, Bach’s pupil Johann Agricola translated Tosi’s Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni. Did Bach suggest this, and are perhaps Agricola’s extensive explanations based on views that Bach expressed in his lessons? Can’t we assume a parallel here to the pupil and teacher Christoph Bernhard/Heinrich Schütz, as in an “Anleitung zur Singekunst Johann Sebastian Bachs in der Fassung seines Schülers Johann Agricola”? After all, Agricola sang out of the Florilegium Portense under Bach, and described in his discussion of Tosi’s work, for example, Faustina Bordoni singing her consonants with an exaggeration and distinctness like no other. Considering the importance of text in Bach’s musical thinking (epitaph: harmony chosen according to the meaning of each individual word: whoever does this also wants to hear it sung that way) and his familiarity with the art of rhetoric, this may also have been one of the aspects of his voice teaching.

Bach was absolutely untypical; his compositions were not exactly modern, his writing style distancing him from his own period. And what about singing? Can we expect nothing of him there? I do not share the view of the many singers who say that Bach’s vocal parts are written in an instrumental style, without regard for vocal chords. Bach studied singing and was immersed in vocal music throughout his life. In my experience, the technical problems in Bach’s vocal parts can be wonderfully solved by using the Italian singing method, in which the voice sings words and syllables into an open resonance chamber, for example in rapid parlando passages with a syllabic setting. A feared entrance is the beginning of the aria  Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben. By “inhaling” the breath (inalare la voce) and “widening” the voice as if to reach a low note, this opening usually becomes effortless, and the character appropriately restrained and compassionate.

Can we prove that Bach did not use Italian pronunciation in Latin?  More than half the singers in Dresden were Italians. At times this was also the case even at the small court in Bückeburg and elsewhere. The superiority of Italian delivery cannot have escaped the notice of Germans singing side-by-side with Italians.

I believe that we can guess a great deal even without knowing which singing tutors were in Bach’s library, or at the St. Thomas school. In a talk in the year 1950 Paul Hindemith described Bach as a man who went to extremes to find solutions. He may have reflected on every conceivable contrapuntal possibility in the way a chess player memorizes a full repertoire of moves. In questions of the voice, Bach will not have been satisfied with halfway measures. It stands to reason that he must have been an advocate of the old Italian school of singing.